The American Slave Trade (Spears)/Chapter 15

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3515976The American Slave Trade (Spears) — Chapter 151907John Randolph Spears



Story of the Half-hearted, Wholly Futile Work of Blockading the African Coast — Reward of an Officer Who Earnestly Strove to Stop the Trade — An Interesting Period in the Career of Commodore M, C. Perry — American and British Squadrons Compared — The Sham Work of the Buchanan Administration.

The first act of Congress to connect our navy in any way with the slave-trade was that of 1800. Section 4 provided "That it shall be lawful for any of the commissioned vessels of the United States to seize and take any vessel employed in carrying on trade, business or traffic, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this, or the said act, to which this is in addition."

Nothing to attract public attention was done by the navy under this act until 1811, when Captain H. G. Campbell, senior officer at Charleston, was ordered by Secretary Paul Hamilton to "hasten" to the St. Mary's River as already noted, to stop the smuggling trade. A similar use of the navy was made in the trouble with Aury.

After the act of March 3, 1819, several ships were sent to the coast of Africa. The Cyane, Captain ward Trenchard, twenty-four guns, sailed from the United States in January, 1820; the corvette Hornet, Captain George C. Reed, eighteen guns, sailed in June, 1820, and the corvette John Adams, Captain H. S. Wadsworth, twenty-four guns, sailed July 18, 1820. To these was added the schooner Alligator, Captain R. F. Stockton, that sailed on April 3, 1821, reached the coast on May 6, started home in July, sailed out once more on October 4, and left for home on December 17, thus making two cruises on the coast in that year. The schooner Shark, Captain M. C. Perry (a brother of the hero of Lake Erie), sailed on August 7, 1821, and was on the slave-coast a part of September, all of October, and a part of November. Trenchard of the Cyane reported that there were three hundred slave-ships on the coast. Perry reported, "I could not even hear of an American slaving vessel; and I am fully impressed with the belief that there is not one at present afloat."[1]

The Cyane captured five American slavers, the Hornet took one, the Alligator took four, but three of these were recaptured from the prize-crews, The fourth, the Jeune Eugene, reached Boston and was condemned.

In 1822, Captain R. T. Spence succeeded Trenchard in command of the Cyane. The Secretary of the Navy, Samuel L. Southard, in his report dated December 1, 1823, says that both Spence and Perry "have, for short periods, cruised on the coast of Africa to carry into effect the intentions of the Government.: [they] neither saw nor heard of any vessel, under the American flag, engaged in the slave-trade." Thereafter the work of the navy in suppressing the slave-trade was confined to "occasional visits" to Liberia until 1839, when the shame aroused by the frequent reports of the use of the American flag by slavers caused some activity. The brig Dolphin, Commander Bell, and the schooner Grampus, Lieutenant Paine, were sent to the coast, where they merely scared a few slavers. Captain John S. Paine, of the schooner Grampus, having been ordered to the coast of Africa to suppress the slave-trade, assumed that he was to do everything possible within the laws of nations to accomplish the work. He found many slavers provided with double sets of papers. Now, under the laws he could do nothing with slavers bearing any flag but his own. But England having made treaties including the right of search on that coast with a number of continental powers, her cruisers were able to search almost any ship visiting the coast except those under the American flag.

To meet the scheme of double papers Captain Paine and Commander William Tucker, of the British forces, agreed that whenever the Grampus fell in with a vessel manifestly a slaver, and showing any flag except the American, she was to be detained (but not searched) until a British cruiser could be brought to search her. On the other hand, every slaver showing the American flag was to be detained (but not searched) until the Grampus could come to make the search. When Paine reported his plan to Washington he was promptly told that his plan was "contrary to the well-known principles" of his Government. The slave-coast was 3,000 miles long. Paine was ordered to “suppress” all American slavers there with the Grampus.

In 1842 came the Ashburton treaty, under which we were bound to keep on the coast of Africa a “sufficient and adequate" squadron or naval force of vessels for the "suppression" of the slave-trade. England was bound by the same words.[2]

The fact is, we never had on the coast, for any length of time worth mention, even the eighty guns which the treaty called for. The table shows how many guns were on ships assigned to the squadron, not what were actually on the coast.

Commodore M. C. Perry was the first officer to command on the coast under this treaty. He got his orders on April 6, 1843, and reached Liberia on August ist. It was almost a year after the treaty was ratified before we had a gun on the coast, and even then she was at an American free colony.

Perry’s ship was the Saratoga, a frigate, whereas light, swift schooners were needed. However, the Porpoise did cruise on the slave-coast. The instructions to her commander, as issued by Perry, may be summed up in the following paragraph taken from a letter under date of August 1st:

It is only necessary for me to add that under no circumstances are you to permit, without resistance for the extent of your means, any foreign vessel of war, of whatever force or nation, in the exercise of any assumed right of search or visitation, to board in your presence (you having‘first forbidden it) any vessel having the American flag displayed. But you are to use every vigilance in examining, with your own officers, the vessels so displaying the American flag, and if it shall be found that she has unauthorizedly hoisted such flag, you will, if there be no cause for detention by yourself, immediately give notice to any vessel of war in sight that, she (the vessel examined by you) has no rightful claim to your interference or protection.

The Decatur also cruised on the slave-coast. Her orders said:

It is my desire that you show your ship at as many of the slave and trading marts as time and circumstances will authorize.
This order calls to mind a certain game constable employed by the State of New York to prevent poachers from killing deer in the Adirondacks out of season. Some law-abiding citizens having notified him that Utica scoundrels were killing deer by jacklight on Little Black Creek Lake, the constable said: ‘Ill stop them at once.’ Thereat he drove as near to the lake as the woods roads would permit, and stuck his card in the splinters of a dozen or more stumps along the route.

“There,” said he; That 'll scare ’em out.” Then he drove home again.

Having fallen in with a British cruiser, Perry got authentic stories of two American vessels, the Illinois and Shakspeare, that brought slave-goods to the coast, and, after discharging, were loaded with slaves. Then the American flag was hauled down and away they went over the sea. The Illinois hailed from Gloucester, Mass., and was the property of Pason & Co.

In the instructions issued to British naval officers on the coast after the treaty of August 9, 1842, appears the following sentence:

"The commanding officers of Her Majesty’s vessels on the African station are to bear in mind that it is no part of their duty to capture or visit, or in any way interfere with, vessels of the United States, whether these vessels shall have slaves on board or not,"

The British officers had only to satisfy themselves that a ship really had American papers. They were even instructed to manœuvre so as to board without bringing to the vessels flying the American flag.

Meantime it should be noted that Perry had been instructed that it was "highly desirable that a vessel of each nation should, as far as possible, cruise in company with a vessel of the other, so that each may be in a position to assert the rights and prevent the abuse of the flag of its own country.”

"To assert the rights" was put first, of course; joint cruising was desirable rather to keep the British from American traders than to suppress the slavetrade.

"Joint cruising”? was one of the stock terms in use at Washington before the civil war. Every administration believed in “joint cruising" as the right way to suppress the slave-trade.

Says the chaplain to the African squadron in the years 1855-57, himself a believer in slavery, in his book “Adventures and Observations on the West Coast of Africa’ (p. 318): “The joint cruising has been from the first in spirit and letter dead. It is hardly worth while to inquire upon which party the greater blame rests in the non-fulfilment of this provision; but it is certainly true that the object of the treaty could be better carried out by a hearty and well-understood co-operation. The prevailing indifference on this subject may be seen by the following statement: The flagships of the American and British squadrons on the coast in the years 1855, 1856 and part of 1857 met but once, and that at sea. They were two miles apart; they recognized each other by signal, and by the same means held the following communication:

"'Anything to communicate?'

"Answer. — 'Nothing to communicate,'”

Perry himself summed up the result of his work as the commander of the American squadron for the suppression of the slave-trade on the coast of Africa in a letter to Secretary A. P. Upshur, dated September 5, 1843:

"I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the transportation of slaves; nor do I believe there has been one so engaged for several years.”

He deliberately ignored the cases of the Illinois and the Shakspeare. Moreover that was in 1843, when a condition of affairs prevailed at Rio Janeiro that led the United States Consul, a Wise of Virginia, to write, a little later: “We are a byword among nations — the only people who can fetch and carry any and every thing for the slave-trade without fear of the English cruisers" — a condition wherein the slavers were allowed “to pervert our glorious flag into the pirate’s flag.

We can now see how if happened that Perry was honored with the command of the Gulf squadron in the war with Mexico, and with the command of the Japan expedition in later years. The name of Oliver Hazard Perry will be held in honor while glorious deeds afloat are remembered; the name of his brother Matthew C. Perry brings the flush of shame to the face of everyone who is proud of the navy’s glory, The system of patrol was utterly wretched and Perry was a fit man for commodore under such a system.

After Commodore Perry the next naval officer in interest to this history was Admiral Andrew Hull Foote, in those days a lieutenant-commander, who was sent to the coast as captain of the brig Perry.

Foote was a sincere man, but, being of a sanguine temperament, he was mistaken as to what was really accomplished by the American squadron. He carried out the spirit of his orders, and so devoted very much more time to hunting for British cruisers that were accused of boarding American ships than to suppressing the slave-trade. In a book that he wrote about his experience on the coast, he devotes more space to telling how "the American commodore argued from documents and other testimony that bona fide American vessels had been interfered with, and, whether engaged in legal or illegal trade, they were in no sense amenable to British cruisers" than to the capture of slavers.

Nevertheless Foote did good work on the coast, and his book has some good stories of slaver days in it. Among the best of the stories is that of the capture of the American bark Pons, Captain James Berry, on November 30, 1845. The Pons had been at Kabenda for twenty days during which the British cruiser Cygnet remained on blockade. But-a time came when the Cygnet had to leave for supplies. At that Captain Berry turned the ship over to one Gallano, a Portuguese slaver, and at eight o’clock that night the Pons was under way with nine hundred and three slaves under her hatches.

To avoid the cruisers off shore the Pons kept alongshore during the night. At daylight, seeing the upper sails of a British cruiser out at sea, she furled her own sails and drifted so close in to the breakers that the natives came to the beach expecting her to come ashore. However, she neither grounded nor attracted the British cruiser, and eventually she stood out to sea.

As it happened, the Yorktown, Captain Bell, was lying in her path, but the slavers supposed she

then he cast loose the anchor.
See page 146.
was a British cruiser and at once set the American flag. That settled her fate, for she was a legitimate prize to an American warship. The Portuguese captain put on his hatches, but no sooner had the American naval officer boarded her than they were taken off and the "slaves gave a shout that could have been heard a mile.”

A remarkable fact about this ship was that she had no slave-deck. About eight hundred and fifty of her cargo had been stowed in bulk on the water-casks and provision barrels in the hold. Eighteen had died during the night. In the fourteen days that elapsed while going to Monrovia one hundred and fifty more died, and eight died while in the harbor before they could be landed.

Foote’s chief prize was a big ship called the Martha. The Perry arrived at Ambriz on June 5, 1850, in search of her flagship, John Adams, but learned that she had gone to Loanda, Sailing thence the Perry, while at sea, next day, saw a big ship standing in for the coast and at four o’clock in the afternoon brought her to. At this time the Perry had not shown her flag and the stranger hoisted the American flag. Her name and port, "Martha, New York," were painted across her stern.;

Accordingly a boat was sent to her, when her captain saw, by the uniform of the boat’s officer, that the Perry was an American cruiser. At that the Martha’s American flag was hauled down and the Brazilian hoisted, while a writing-desk was thrown overboard on the side of the Martha opposite the boat.

A Portuguese who claimed that he was captain protested when Lieutenant Rush, the American boarding officer, reached the deck, but Rush said that the ship had made herself a legal prize as a pirate by throwing away her papers. The writing-desk had been picked up and its contents discovered meantime. The American captain, though disguised as a common sailor, was identified. He finally admitted that she was a slaver and that she was to have taken on board 1,800 slaves that night.

The Martha and all her crew were sent to New York, where the ship was condemned. Her captain was released on $3,000 bail, which he at once forfeited. The mate was not well taken care of by the slavers, for he was sent to prison for two years.

The farce which our courts played regularly in those days was exhibited in this case, for the percentage payable to the slaver captain on an ordinary cargo of slaves landed — say four hundred — was $12,000. Rarely, if ever, was a greater bail than $5,000 exacted.

And it is to be further noted that when Foote captured the Martha he had "her crew put in irons," but "both American and Brazilian captains, together with three or four cabin passengers [probably slaveagents] were given to understand that they would be similarly served in case of the slightest evidence of insubordination!" They lived in the cabin.

Foote declares that the yellow fever, that has carried off its tens of thousands of white men, was generated from dead slaves in the slavers at Rio de Janeiro in 1849. He is right beyond question. It is a fact that may even now give us pause. The sufferings of the slaves were avenged on the white race with merciless severity. There is a universal law of compensation. Foote believed that the activity of the American squadron in the early fifties had broken up the slavetrade. How far wrong he was appears in the report of the Secretary of the Navy for 1860, wherein no less than eleven slavers are mentioned as prizes taken in 1859. The one most important to this history was the ship Erie, captured on August 8, 1860, off the Congo, by the sloop-of-war Mohican, Commander Sylvester W. Godon. She had eight hundred and ninety-seven slaves on board. She landed those that survived at Monrovia.

The number of slavers captured that year was most remarkable. At first glance one would say that the Buchanan administration was honestly striving to enforce the law, but the fact is, this flurry of activity was but a part of a scheme to enlarge the borders of American slave territory. Buchanan and his Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey, deliberately told Congress that the administration was “active in its endeavors to suppress the African coast slave-trade,” when they were active only in an effort to annex Cuba to the United States. On the same page where Toucey boasts that his department was "active" (p. 9, report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1860), he says:

“Cuba is now the only mart in the world open to this trade. . . . If Cuba were to pass under the Constitution of the United States by annexation the trade would then be effectually suppressed.”

  1. "American State Papers — Naval Affairs," Vol. I., p. 1099.
  2. A message of President Buchanan under date of April 21, 1858, to the Senate of the United States contains the following tables showing how each nation kept its faith :

    The following is a statement of the number of vessels and total number of guns of the British squadron on the west coast of Africa on the 1st of January of each year From 1843 to 1857, inclusive:

    Year. Vessels. Guns. Year. Vessels. Guns.
    1843 14 141 1851 26 201
    1844 14 117 1852 25 174
    1845 20 180 1853 19 117
    1846 23 245 1854 18 108
    1847 21 205 1855 12 71
    1848 21 208 1856 13 72
    1849 23 155 1857 16 84
    1850 24 154

    The following is a statement of the number of vessels and total number of guns of the United States squadron on the coast of Africa on the 1st of January of each year From 1843 to 1857, inclusive:

    Year. Vessels. Guns. Year. Vessels. Guns.
    1843 2 30 1851 6 96
    1844 4 82 1852 5 76
    1845 5 98 1853 7 136
    1846 6 82 1854 4 88
    1847 4 80 1855 3 82
    1848 5 66 1856 3 46
    1849 5 72 1857 3 46
    1850 5 76